The strange voyage of the ghost fleet

By Trust for Public Land
Published October 28, 2015

The strange voyage of the ghost fleet

On the Maryland side of the Potomac, in the rural community of Nanjemoy, you'll find a sheltered cove called Mallows Bay. The sandy bluffs and dense stands of ash and pine resemble many other quiet spots along the river. But there's something in the water: the largest ship graveyard in North America.

How'd it get there? Well, in the final years of World War I, the Allies found themselves short on sea-power: German submarines had taken a heavy toll. With ample timber reserves, Americans hit on a plan to make up the losses by building hundreds of wooden steamships. The U.S. government doled out contracts, and a building frenzy ensued.

But the war ended sooner than expected, leaving officials with the peculiar problem of what to do with its unused (and now unwanted) armada. Riding at anchor in Widewater, Virginia, the hastily assembled fleet posed a hazard to shipping traffic and a nuisance to fishermen, so the decision was made to move most of the ships across the river to the secluded Mallows Bay.

The fleet—and the Mallows Bay property itself—changed hands through a succession of salvage companies that tried everything to get rid of the ships: sinking them, beaching them, burning them, burying them, and taking them apart nail by nail. No one managed to turn much profit or to finish the job—and in the process of trying, they made a junkyard of the once pristine river cove.

But in the decades that followed, writes historian Donald G. Shomette, nature took its course."The years rolled by and the battlefield contours of Mallows Bay softened, as wind-borne seeds took root in the rich, soil-filled holds of burnt-out ships, as creatures large and small began to return, as the green chain of life was slowly reforged." 

By the time anyone expressed serious interest in cleaning out the bay, it no longer made much sense to do so. An Audubon Society representative testified in 1970 that the wrecks "have been there for so long—nearly half a century—that it is inconceivable that they are not an integral part of the ecosystem." In the end, regulators decided that removing them would cause more harm than good.

And so they remained.

In the 1990s, archaeologists undertook an extensive survey of the wrecks—which turned out to include, in addition to the wooden fleet, everything from modern car ferries to Revolutionary era longboats. In 2002, The Trust for Public Land at last protected the Mallows Bay property for the state of Maryland, and earlier this month the site was nominated for status as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Most importantly, Mallows Bay is yours. So if you find yourself in Washington, D.C., all done with city sightseeing and in the mood to get outdoors, consider renting a kayak and driving south. From the park's boat launch or put-in, point your prow toward the wreckage for a view of a different kind of monument: one with some interesting things to say about human plans and natural resilience. Above you, you'll find ospreys, egrets, and herons. Below you, the Baxley and the Aspenhill, the Grayling and the Musketo—still decomposing slowly in the mud.

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